8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Steelers -12.5, Over/Under: 40
Week Fifteen closes out with two teams residing at opposite ends of the spectrum, though both have been struggling to find form as the Cincinnati Bengals play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers from Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. After racing out to a franchise-best 11-0 record, the Steelers (11-2, 1st in AFC North) have begun to unravel in the month of December, losing back-to-back games to the likes of Washington (17-23) and Buffalo (15-26), drastically altering their Postseason plans in the process. Just three weeks ago, Pittsburgh reigned atop the AFC in lone possession of the No. One Seed in the conference, which is significant because only one First Round Bye will be issued in 2020 opposed to the customary two under normal circumstances. However, we’ve long come to the understanding that 2020 has been anything but normal, as (Head Coach) Mike Tomlin can attest to of late; his charges have been greatly influenced by COVID-19 this season, with a number of games being moved around their schedule, effectively forcing them to play their last three games in the span of just twelve days. Is this simply a case of fatigue that has struck the Black & Yellow, or are there deeper-lying issues that have finally come to a head? Well, though it could certainly be a bit of both, we’ve long subscribed to the latter…
Even though they had found a way to begin the campaign with eleven consecutive victories, the general feeling was that time was indeed running out for the Steelers, who despite their perfect record were not without their flaws. First and foremost, that prior winning streak was far from the most convincing, with six of their first eleven wins coming by one possession or less, while the overall field of opponents was far from the most imposing; only three of their first eleven opponents currently own a wining record, with two of those outings coming against the Baltimore Ravens, though the latter of those meetings was contested under the circumstances of being postponed thrice by COVID, with their bitter rivals missing well over a dozen starters due to the virus. And then there is the matter of the Offense degenerating into an unbalanced mess. The return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger (66.2% 3,292 YDS, 6.01 NY/A, 29 TD, 9 INT, 63.4 QBR), who missed all but two games in 2019 due to an elbow injury, was supposed to return overall balance to a team that relied heavily upon it’s Defense to finish 8-8 last season. However, while the 38-year old has certainly played well in this advanced stage of his career, the Offense has gotten worse as 2020 has progressed, in large part due to the absence of a running game; after averaging a slid 129.7 yards on the ground over the first six games, this facet of the Offense has all but disappeared, mustering a scant 54.3 yards in the seven games since on an embarrassing 2.9 yards per carry, relegated below fifty rushing yards on five occasions. Granted, part of that is due to scheme while the other is due to personnel, for this unit simply isn’t built to line and run the football down their opponents’ throat anymore. Following his Quarterback’s elbow injury, (Offensive Coordinator) Randy Fichtner has reassessed his approach to the passing game, transitioning to a quicker attack consisting of shorter throws which has more or less replaced the presence of the ground game. Furthermore, the strength of this group is clearly the Receiving Corps, which is littered with young talent such as JuJu Smith-Schuster (79 REC, 655 YDS, 8.3 Y/R, 7 TD), Diontae Johnson (69 REC, 694 YDS, 10.1 Y/R, 5 TD), James Washington (28 REC, 372 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 5 TD), and (Rookie) Chase Claypool (50 REC, 664 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 8 TD), along with (Tight End) Eric Ebron (51 REC, 511 YDS, 10.0 Y/R, 4 TD). Unfortunately, opposing Defenses have gotten wise to this and adjusted accordingly; without the threat of the run, there are no legitimate opportunities for Play-Action, and with Roethlisberger’s mobility an afterthought at this stage of his career, the overall attack is rather predictable. This was clearly the case in the first loss of the season, a 23-17 affair against the Washington Football Team in which the hosts were held to a season-low TWENTY-ONE rushing yards on just fourteen carries. Tomlin’s troops struggled to build upon an early 14-0 lead, particularly in the Fourth Quarter where each of their four possessions concluded in failure, turning the football over on downs and later intercepted on a tipped pass. Washington’s relentless pass-rush created havoc in the trenches, tipping Roethlisberger’s attempts at the line of scrimmage on four occasions, the last of which led to the interception that ultimately ended the game and snapped the winning streak. The six-time Pro-Bowler attempted a season-high FIFTY-THREE passes on that day, shining more light on the unbalanced nature of this unit. Now in his seventeenth season with the franchise that drafted him Eleventh Overall back in the 2004 NFL Draft, one would imagine that the mandate would be to prolong his career by taking the football out of his hands and playing more complementary football, but that clearly hasn’t been the case in Pittsburgh, where Big Ben has already attempted a whopping 521 passes, the fifth-highest total of his career, and with three games left, though the chances of him reaching his career-high of 675 (set two years ago) is probably unlikely. Furthermore, this new approach is reflected in his production thus far, for Roethlisberger has been sacked just eleven times for a league-low 2.1% of his dropbacks (also a career-best), but has nevertheless averaged only 6.01 net yards per attempt, which would be his lowest figure since 2008, while his yards per completion (9.5) is under 10.0 yards for the first time of his career. It’s a short-passing game, folks, but unfortunately it appears to be all Pittsburgh really has on the offensive side of the football.
When we last saw the Steelers, it was more of the same in a 26-15 loss at the surging Buffalo Bills as the Offense once again proved toothless as the affair progressed. After punting on their first five possessions of the night, the visitors finally got on the board after forcing and recovering a fumble, with Roethlisberger driving his side thirty yards on three plays, finding the aforementioned Washington for a 19-yard score to open their ledger. Unfortunately, that would be the it until the Fourth Quarter after the Bills ran off twenty-four unanswered points, aided by a 51-yard interception return of Roethlisberger for a touchdown shortly before Halftime. Following their strongest drive of the game, a 10-play/81-yard series culminating with a short touchdown toss to Smith-Schuster and a successful two-point conversion to Ebron, the Steelers were able to cut the deficit to eight point. However, the hosts would kick a field goal and stretch their advantage to eleven, before intercepting Roethlisberger three plays later and running out the clock. The two-time Super Bowl Champion was 21-of-37 for just 187 yards with two touchdowns and interceptions apiece, as the Offense as a whole could amass a mere 224 total yards, while struggling mightily on third down (1-of-10) and possessing the football for a scant 24:45. Perhaps a trip to Cincinnati will cure what ails he and his team, for there isn’t another team in the league that the veteran signal-caller has enjoyed more success against, owning a 24-7 record against with forty-seven total touchdowns. Furthermore, Big Ben hasn’t lost to the Bengals since 2015, winning eight straight games against them including a 36-10 victory back on November 15th, tossing a season-high four touchdowns in the process.
Meanwhile, it’s been a different story altogether for the Bengals (2-10-1, 4th in AFC North), who are limping towards their fifth consecutive losing season and third straight finish at the bottom of the division. While the rest of the AFC North is thinking Playoffs, Cincinnati continues to be mired in the early stages of a rebuild that is now in Year Two. After finishing a league-worst 2-14 last year, they welcomed the No. One Overall Pick, Joe Burrow (65.3%, 2,688 YDS, 5.64 NY/A, 13 TD, 5 INT, 56.1 QBR) to the fold, with the hopes that 2019 Heisman (and Ohio native) would propel them back to relevance. While the Rookie played well and the team as a whole was indeed competitive, they struggled to parlay that effort into wins, managing a 2-7-1 mark before Burrow saw his debut campaign come to a premature end, tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee in a 20-9 loss at the Washington Football Team. Since that fateful afternoon, they’ve lost three consecutive contests, with the offense struggling greatly, scoring thirty-one points COMBINED. So with just three games left in what has been yet another dismal campaign, how can the Bengals feel about themselves heading into 2021?
Early on it became painfully evident that this was always going to be a difficult season for the Bengals, who seemed destined to play the role of punching bag in the STACKED AFC North. With the the Ravens coming off a 14-2 finish, the Steelers welcoming back the aforementioned Roethlisberger, and the Browns finally getting their @#$% together, it was going to be particularly difficult for this young team show much improvement. Think about it for a moment, folks; the other three teams within the division have amassed a cumulative record of 30-11 (.731), with all three on their way to Playoffs. Cincinnati on the other hand find themselves in Year Two of what is clearly an extensive rebuild under the guidance of (Head Coach) Zac Taylor, though for all intents and purposes this season is truly Year One following 2019 which served as a Year Zero of sorts. If you’re a football nerd and are interested in rebuilding projects, then this one must be absolutely FASCINATING for a variety of reasons. Historically, this is a franchise that runs counter to the rest of the National Football League, employing one of the smallest scouting departments with the notoriously patient (but cheap) Mike Brown, serving as both Owner and de facto General Manager, and while they’ve done a solid job of drafting and developing talent in the past, this team has rarely ever been a destination for Free Agents. And then there is Taylor, who in nearly two full seasons has recorded a dreadful 4-24-1 record (.155). Of course, the 37-year old was a bit of a surprise to replace the venerable Marvin Lewis, who lasted a remarkable sixteen years in the Queen City, despite failing to win a single Playoff game. Taylor spent 2017 and 2018 under the wing of Sean McVay, coaching Quarterbacks for the Los Angeles Rams, and helping further the development of their young franchise passer, Jared Goff. We’ve seen the rest of the league prioritize associates of McVay in the hiring process, and while some of have gone on to enjoy immediate success (such as Matt LaFleur in Green Bay), Taylor has been a very different story. Much of last season was spent ascertaining just what he had on a roster littered with aging veterans and intriguing young prospects. Eventually, all that losing paid off handsomely, leading to the selection of Burrow, who despite the losses played very well despite performing behind a porous Offensive Line that relinquished thirty-two sacks in ten games. With that said, six of their first eight outings were decided by one possession, with a number of young players rising to prominence; (Receiver) Tyler Boyd (78 REC, 840 YDS, 10.8 Y/R, 4 TD) formed a quick rapport with his young Quarterback, while his Rookie deputy, Tee Higgins (58 REC, 778 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 5 TD) acquainted himself rather well, while fellow Rookie (Tight End), Drew Sample (36 REC, 322 YDS, 8.9 Y/R, 0 TD), and (Safety) Jessie Bates (92 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 3 INT, 14 PD) showed flashes. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this is a team that needs to continue building talent on both sides of the football, for they simply don’t have the depth at many key positions to truly compete at a consistent level. With the Offense Line stuck in rebuilding mode, the running game continues to struggle massively, ranking thirtieth in both yards (92.3) and yards per carry (3.8), a lingering issue made all the more troublesome with (Tailback) Joe Mixon (140 TCH, 566 YDS, 4.0 Y/T, 4 TD) spending the last seven games on Injured Reserve. Furthermore, the Defense has experienced it’s growing pains too, largely due to a lack of pressure (15 Sacks) and takeaways (12 Turnovers), though those two statistics oftentimes go hand in hand.
When we last saw the Bengals, they dropped their third consecutive game since Burrow’s season came to an end, and fifth overall, as the injury-ravaged Dallas Cowboys handled them with relative ease, 30-7. Of course, this affair marked the return of Andy Dalton, who had spent the previous nine years as the Starting Quarterback in Cincinnati, amassing a 70-61-2 record (.526) and taking them to five straight Postseason appearances from 2011 to 2015, including a division title in 2015. The veteran must has relished the opportunity to face his former team, as his current one opened the afternoon with seventeen unanswered points, with Dalton finding Amari Sooper for an 11-yard score midway through the Second Quarter. Brandon Allen (65.5%, 506 YDS, 5.00 NY/A, 3 TD, 2 INT, 36.0 QBR) would finally get the hosts on the board, hitting (veteran Receiver) A.J. Green (41 REC, 419 YDS, 10.2 Y/R, 2 TD) for a 5-yard touchdown just before Halftime, but that would be all the Bengals would be able to muster, as they were outscored 13-0 in the Second Half. Though neither team was all that impressive, Taylor’s troops were definitely the most wasteful, committing three costly turnovers, all of which were lost fumbles coming on their first three possessions. Furthermore, two of their final three drives ended up turning it over on downs, as Taylor desperately tried everything possible to keep his side in it. Allen also left the affair with a lower leg injury, with his status for tonight’s game against the Steelers currently up in the air. If he can’t participate then the starting nod will fall to Ryan Finley (52.6%, 75 YDS, 0.88 NY/A, 0 TD, 2 INT, 8.6 QBR), who has failed to make a positive impression since the Bengals drafted him 104th Overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, throwing just nineteen passes in three games this season, two of which were intercepted.